Many view moderation as equal with indecision, weakness, opportunism and cowardice; boring, stuffy, and passionless: a bland, incoherent, and undesirable virtue lacking firmness and clarity of purpose. “Moderation sees itself as beautiful only because it is unaware that in the eye of the immoderate it appears black and sober, and consequently ugly-looking,” Friedrich Nietzsche once quipped.
These days, in our society, most everything is presented in extremes and we are saturated by stimulation, which we seek because we erroneously believe that the more intense an experience is, the more pleasurable it will be. Society tells us that the answer for restlessness, boredom, anxiousness, and unhappiness is always more stimulation. People take pride in going to the extremes. All-or-nothing. Bigger, better, faster, more. Give one-hundred and ten percent in everything you do. Yet, as we increase our stimulation, we find, paradoxically, we need even more stimulation and risk to achieve the same pleasure that the previous level of stimulation gave us until eventually we reach the point of diminishing returns. We become numbed to nuance. “If one oversteps the bounds of moderation, the greatest pleasures cease to please.” Epictetus
How then, if ratcheting up intensity is not the means by which one can infinitely increase pleasure, can we find greater enjoyment and pleasure? By cultivating the virtue of moderation. Rediscover the hidden layers of ordinary experiences. Delve into the wonders of the world. Be mindful of the sensory experiences you encounter throughout the day: the taste and texture and aroma of your food, the breeze across your skin. Slow down and experience things as they unfold rather than rush from one thing to the next, pell mell, or worse, do two or more things at once.
Craving for stimulation feeds upon itself and we reach a point where at least our minds, if not our bodies, must be stimulated every moment. When the speed of such stimulation becomes too slow, we lose interest and become antsy. To get through mind-numbing chores like folding laundry, we might mindlessly distract ourselves by watching a movie, and when watching a movie, we might find ourselves surfing the internet during a slow scene. For the next week, so much as it is possible, try to do one task at a time. Concentrate on what you are doing and the sensory experience. Feel the warmth of the clothes fresh from the dryer as you lovingly fold them. Stay off the phone or computer when with others and savor the conversation and company. When watching a movie, watch the movie. By distracting yourself during a slow scene, you can possibly miss the reveal of a major plot point.
Too much of anything, no matter how great, can be harmful. Even the most virtuous virtue, pursued to excess, crowds out other virtues and causes harm, becoming a vice. “Exactness and neatness in moderation is a virtue, but carried to extremes narrows the mind.” Francois Fenelon stated. The greatest barrier to moderation is our very human tendency to label entities as good or bad in absolute terms rather than weighing them as a part of a greater, complex whole.
Moderation seeks to balance insufficiency and excess, weighing everything as it relates to every other thing as a part of the greater, complex whole. In The Republic, Plato defined moderation as the virtue that allows us to control our passions, emotions, and desires. Aristotle insisted that ‘a master of any art avoids excess and defect’ and seeks the ‘intermediate’ that preserves order and freedom. This intermediate must constantly be evaluated within an ever-changing context in order to decide on the appropriate course of action at a given time. This is what makes moderation so challenging. It can only be learned through experience and practice. Wisdom, learned through the experiencing of extremes, gives perspective.